August 10 saw the heritage railway sector expand its ‘territory’ still further, with the running of the first North Norfolk Railway dining train from Sheringham over Network Rail’s Bittern Line to Cromer.
If you take into account the mountain of red tape that the heritage line’s directors had to cut through just to get the level crossing in Sheringham reinstated, that train has taken well over a decade to run.
Ironically, the trip inadvertently became hugely symbolic of the success of the preservation movement as a whole. For on the way back, it doubled up as a ‘real’ train service carrying ordinary Bittern Line passengers to Sheringham.
In doing so, it became the first ‘real’ (as opposed to tourist, heritage or enthusiast) steam-hauled passenger train to run over that surviving section of the fabled Midland & Great Northern Joint Railway system since February 28, 1959.
When we talk about rail closures, the name Beeching automatically comes to mind. Yet while rail closures had been steadily implemented by British Railways throughout the 1950s, it was the closure in 1959 of the M&GN – a complete system in itself – that set the alarm bells ringing across the nation, two years before Beeching’s appointment. If an entire system could be axed, in the wake of soaring competition from road transport and escalating debts incurred by the nationalised rail network, what hope would there be for other routes?
As we know, far worse was to follow…the Great Central main line, the Southern Railway main line from Exeter to Plymouth and the ‘Withered Arm’, the Waverley Route, the Somerset & Dorset. While on paper there seemed justification for the decisions taken half a century ago, with each passing year we are now beginning to realise the folly, not only of failing to mothball routes or lifting them, but worst of all, not safeguarding the vacant trackbeds for future use.
Passenger numbers on the national network are at a new zenith and climbing, yet had more towns not been disenfranchised, it could have been so much better…
The sooner the North Norfolk Railway could establish a regular presence in Cromer the better for everyone, not least of all the traders, hoteliers and shopkeepers.
There is no run-round loop there because that part of the original formation was sold to a supermarket, which now stands right alongside the remaining track. However, will that store be there forever, or will it one day be redeveloped in accordance with the latest retailer trends of the time? Could another piece of land outside the station throat be made available for a loop in the much shorter term?
It has been said that Brexit may, at least in the short term, lead more Brits to take holidays at home, and as it works with great success for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and Whitby, Cromer now has a golden opportunity to grasp – and the sooner the better.
All of this augurs well for the Swanage Railway’s return to Wareham next June, and the prospect of steam services once a run-round loop is added to the north of the station. If successful, might we see steam trips run regularly from Swanage to Bournemouth at some future stage?
Then, of course, there are the giants in waiting – the Bodmin & Wenford Railway’s planned extension to Wadebridge, which could also bring back community transport, and the Lynton & Barnstaple railway breaking out of its Woody Bay to Killington Lane strait jacket – a decision on planning permission by the Exmoor National Park Authority is expected this autumn. And look at the multiple benefits that would ensure if common sense prevailed and the South Devon Railway was allowed to extend back to the beautiful former GWR terminus of the Ashburton branch.
Yes, it took Hugh Harkett, Julian Birley and Co at the Poppy Line much burning of the midnight oil and juggernauts of persuasion to bring its steam trains back into Cromer.
However, no ifs, buts and maybes any longer – the blueprint is there for others to follow – and fast.
Robin Jones, Editor